* Dungeness B life extension decision due by end 2014
* Final decision on Hinkley Point project "within reach"
* First unit at West Burton gas plant to start end Jan.
* Two other West Burton units to start by mid-2013
By Karolin Schaps
LONDON, Jan 25 (Reuters) - French utility EDF could run its Dungeness B nuclear power plant in south-east England for another 10 years beyond its current shutdown date in 2018, the company's UK chief executive said.
The commercial decision to run nuclear plants beyond current decommissioning dates are in the hands of their operators, while Britain's nuclear regulator reviews the plants' safety on a regular basis and has the power to order the shutdown of a plant if it deems it not safely operated.
Last month EDF, the UK's biggest nuclear power operator, said it expected an average 7-year lifetime extension across its UK nuclear fleet, but it now sees a longer extension of its 1,040 megawatt (MW) Dungeness B power plant, according to an update sent to employees by chief executive Vincent de Rivaz, and seen by Reuters.
"Our judgement, at this stage, is that there is the potential for a 10 year extension to the life of Dungeness B," he said, adding that a decision on the extension was planned by the end of 2014.
EDF, which operates eight of Britain's nine nuclear power stations, last month announced a 7-year lifetime extension at its Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B nuclear plants to 2023.
EDF, whose UK operations contributed about 13 percent of its turnover in the first nine months of 2012, plans to build four new nuclear plants in Britain, with the first expected to open at Hinkley Point in Somerset.
De Rivaz said in his statement that a final investment decision on the Hinkley Point plant was "within reach" and that difficulties EDF had encountered in building Areva's European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR) in France would not happen in the UK.
The French Flamanville project is years behind schedule and billions of euros over budget at 8.5 billion euros.
"We have taken all the learnings from earlier EPR projects and will put them right before the project at Hinkley Point starts," de Rivaz said.
The utility had also planned to open its new 1,300 MW gas-fired power plant at West Burton in 2012, but the start-up has been delayed to this year.
One of the three units is now planned to start full commercial operations by the end of January, while the other two units will follow by mid-2013, de Rivaz said in the same statement.
"It has been challenging. In 2012 we could not completely catch up with the delays and cost impacts we have faced since the start of construction," he said in relation to the West Burton project.
In October 2012, a group of environmental activists had interrupted commissioning work at the plant by climbing two of the site's chimneys.